People incarcerated in jail are one of the most vulnerable populations, and their protection warrants special emergency action. Jails and prisons are known to quickly spread contagious diseases. Incarcerated people have an inherently limited ability to fight the spread of infectious disease since they are confined in close quarters and unable to avoid contact with people who may have been exposed. Responses such as lock downs, placing people in solitary confinement and limiting access to visits from loved ones are punitive and ineffective responses to outbreaks. Importantly, we know that isolation further endangers people and limiting visitation also has adverse effects.
The only acceptable response to the threat of COVID-19 is decarceration. Today there are more than 12,000 people incarcerated in Washington State jails. Almost all of them are still awaiting trial and thus presumed innocent under the law. Their ongoing incarceration is an unacceptable risk to every incarcerated individual as well as public health.
Jails have extremely high turnover rates. Many people are released and admitted every day, and thousands of employees travel in and out of Washington State jails each week. It is not a matter of if coronavirus and COVID-19 infect Washington State jails but when. As few people as possible should be exposed to this dangerous inevitability.
The following steps should be taken to protect the health of all Washington State residents, including those incarcerated in Washington State jails and in their homes on electronic monitoring:
- Washington State should immediately release anyone incarcerated in Washington State jails on an unaffordable money bond (and not onto electronic monitoring unless already ordered by a judge). If a judge has given someone a money bond, it means that they’ve determined the person is cleared for release pretrial. Their ongoing incarceration due solely to access to money is deeply unfair and unethical, especially during this pandemic.
- No new people should be admitted to Washington State jails on money bonds. Admission of as many people as possible should be avoided.
- The courts should provide emergency bond reviews for all incarcerated people who request them with an increased mandate to use all options other than incarceration.
- Washington State should immediately release individuals over the age of 50 or with compromised immune systems from Washington State jails. Research has shown that these individuals are at the highest risk for contracting and experiencing the most serious effects of COVID-19.
- All jurisdictions in Washington State should immediately change their protocols around electronic monitoring (EM) and home confinement to permit liberal movement (the ability to leave one’s home). Currently, people on EM are required to provide documentation of a scheduled doctor’s visit to be granted the ability to leave their home. They are routinely denied permission to go to the grocery store or leave their homes to perform other essential tasks of life. The parole office typically requires 72 hours advance notice to review and approve these requests. Gaining this documentation for a medical visit can often be extremely difficult due to privacy protections placed on medical providers and the difficulty of obtaining a letter over the phone. We are calling on all jurisdictions in Washington State to allow for automatically approved movement to allow people on EM to obtain groceries and other supplies, seek medical treatment, collect school meals, and provide elder and child care in other households. Policies that currently allow 12 hours of movement per day should be treated as the least possible movement allowed during the pandemic.
- The ability to pay money bonds and secure pretrial release for people currently incarcerated in jail or on EM should not be delayed or inhibited in any way.
- People eligible for electronic monitoring must continue to be released into the community. If a person is ordered to EM but does not have access to approved housing, they should be immediately returned to court for a rehearing on their conditions of release.
- If courts remain open, appearance at non-essential criminal court dates should be waived to avoid unnecessary travel and social contact. All in-person pretrial check-ins or other mandated appearances (such as drug testing) should also be waived.
- Cancellation of court dates should not delay anyone’s release from Washington State jails. Given that most people released from Washington State jails return directly to the community, any failure to resolve court cases at the same pace will increase the number of people in jail and thus the threat to their individual health and public health.
- Health care access for anyone remaining in Washington State jails must be liberally provided and unfettered.
- Access to phone calls and video “visitation” should be expanded for all incarcerated people right now and moving forward. This access should be provided free of charge.
- The right to vote must be protected for anyone who remains incarcerated pretrial.
- Personal hygiene, cleaning, and sanitation supplies should be made available free of charge to anyone that remains incarcerated. Hand sanitizer and other essential preventative products must be permitted and should not be considered “contraband.”